Who Really Won Iowa?
We were told it would be close; in the end it turned out to be the closest contest in the history of the Iowa caucus, with Mitt Romney gaining only eight more of the 122,250 votes than Rick Santorum in second. With such a small winning margin, it is perhaps unsurprising that all of the frontrunners have attempted to spin the result as a victory.
Ron Paul’s team was quick to claim his third place finish as a ‘great victory’. To Paul’s supporters, his 21.4% of the vote signals that the Republican Party may finally be willing to welcome this ‘maverick outsider’ into the mainstream party without forcing him to change his message which (he is fond of telling people) has stayed consistent for years.
Although Paul’s 21.4% of the vote against Romney and Santorum’s respective 24.6% and 24.5% appears to show greater acceptance from Republicans, the CBS entry poll suggests that just 14% of self-identifying Republicans cast their vote his way (Romney and Santorum’s shares rise to 27% and 29% respectively). Amongst ‘Independents’, Paul won 43% of the vote. Iowa is one of only nine states in the nation to allow Election Day voter registration (New Hampshire, up next, is another) so South Carolina and Florida will offer a clearer view of how actual Republicans see him.
Mitt Romney may have won the caucus in terms of votes (and even that’s not certain) but his 8-vote victory margin is hardly a knock-out blow. Politico claimed before the caucus that even a third-place finish would be a decent result for Romney in Iowa, as neither Paul nor Santorum pose a long-term threat to his pursuit of the nomination, and a disappointing result in Iowa would be offset by the convincing win that seems inevitable in New Hampshire. Indeed, it could be said that Romney’s real battle in Iowa was to cripple the campaign of Newt Gingrich, who surely posed more of a threat from the right than the seemingly unelectable Santorum. Gingrich’s disappointing 13% of the vote shows that Romney won that battle.
Romney’s attack ads may have derailed Gingrich’s campaign but this ‘victory’ could turn out to have unwelcome consequences. Gingrich knows his chances of gaining the nomination have evaporated, he knows whose fault this is and he has the financial clout and the vindictiveness to stay in the race with the sole purpose of attacking Romney with every chance he gets, without having to concentrate on his own poll numbers (which continue to fall). Whatever result this ‘murder-suicide’ strategy has will most likely not become clear until South Carolina, as Romney’s lead in New Hampshire appears unassailable.
Rick Santorum will have left Iowa the happiest of the Republican field, coming from relative obscurity to within eight votes of victory (giving internet wags the chance to use that ‘Santorum Surges From Behind’ joke they’ve been saving up). He won the support of influential Christian groups and only spent about $600,000, working out at $21 a vote, to Romney’s $156 (and Rick Perry’s ludicrous $480). Most importantly, he led the ‘conservative’ field, beating Gingrich, Perry and Michele Bachmann, who pulled out after the result. He has therefore taken the role of the ‘Anyone But Romney’ candidate for Republicans who are not so keen on the ‘Massachusetts Moderate’.
It is easy to overstate the importance of Santorum’s near-win in Iowa, however impressive the ‘surge’ may have been. Iowa is a small, unrepresentative, very socially conservative state – the perfect place for the ‘Jesus candidate’, as he has styled himself. The CBS entry poll found that 57% of voters counted themselves as an evangelical or born-again Christian. These numbers will not stand up across the country, and so neither are Santorum’s numbers likely to.
So who was the real winner in Iowa? The answer is Barack Obama. He has been able to sit back and watch the unelectable Santorum be embraced by the right, while Romney fails to win any enthusiastic support amongst the party that he will almost certainly be representing against Obama in November. The more time and money Romney spends on eliminating his Republican competitors, the less he will be able to spend on taking down Obama. More results like Iowa, and Obama – with his 42% approval rating – could be on his way to a landslide.